Methods: Another Kind of Writing Group

by Jeff Oaks

Although they were helpful for a decade, eventually I got tired of writing groups. I began to feel like I was 1) often writing toward the aesthetics of the members, 2) irritated by the nit-pickiness that I felt had come into our meetings, 3) realizing that I wasn’t writing out of surprise anymore but obligation, and 4) most importantly, realizing that I wanted to be quiet for a while, to concentrate myself, to hear myself again. Not all of those happened all the time in the writing groups I was in, but they began to happen enough that #4 felt like an urgency. I was feeling like I needed to take control of my work, that I needed to free myself from obligations to everyone. I suspect that having gotten a full-time job during this period, which required me to have many more obligations to teaching and administration, was also involved in my decision to stop being in a writing group.

And then I sailed around the world on Semester at Sea, which is a profoundly transformative experience. And then I broke off a relationship that had been financially and psychically supporting quite a lot of my life. And I didn’t know what to do with my life.

Luckily at this point, Deb Bogen invited me to join her Writing Group, which met once a week at her house. It was made up of a small group (maybe 8?) of very smart people, most of whom did not “do” writing as a living, as well as a couple of old friends who were roughly at the same point in their lives as I was. We sat in Deb’s living room, in a circle, in arrangement of sofa, various chairs, and spots on the floor. Deb read some work she’d found that week to us, then she’d give us a “warming up exercise” that would be related somehow to the reading and which we’d do for five minutes–something like “Write as many sentences as you can that start with “Because it doesn’t matter that…” and then there’d be a more formal, 25 minute exercise that she’d print out. You were completely free to write poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. This Writing Group was a generative group, not a workshopping group, although at the end of the 25 minute period, we were each required to read both the warm-up exercise and the longer piece. There was no criticism, but it was expected that people would tell you what lines, images, passages they were struck by.

I was emotionally raw at the time, which for me looks enormously similar to being frozen, so I was a little nervous that I’d burst into tears or start shouting or something, but fortunately for me, I was also enormously needy. And Deb was the perfect blend of encouraging and disciplining, so I felt that even if I fell apart, she’d deal with it. If I didn’t trust my own strength at the time, I did trust hers.

That group was also important to me because I felt an energy in the spontaniety of the exercises. You didn’t have to be good; indeed it was likely you’d be quite bad considering the time pressure and the assignment pressure (although we were encouraged to leave the assignment requirements behind if the piece starting moving away from it). With the threshold so low, it was easy, I found, to really push myself to take chances. But the chances had to be smart ones, because next to and across from me were lawyers, computer programmers, and philosophers. Some nights, many nights, in fact, they were the better writers, writing in ways that I, with my “reputation” as a writer to protect, wouldn’t have thought to try. They pushed me out many assumptions. Writing became a kind of place where we could all meet and explore and display and laugh and work out ideas.

I found myself writing in a new way, longer lines, weirder metaphors, bigger jumps of association and voice and form than I’d allow myself before. I wrote pieces that teetered on the edge of my anger at the time, that broke into the sadness and the hiding places of my experience. It felt life-saving, but that may not be the right word exactly. It was a renewal of life. It galvanized parts of myself that had retreated from view or use. It took me back to those first days of poetry, when I believed that the art could unite all the parts of my life. It was a workout.

I’d experienced something like it in weeklong workshops at Squaw Valley or at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center summer classes. But unlike those workshops, which took place away from my regular life, this writing group was firmly embedded in my regular life. And so I could begin to shift my schedule so that writing and living existed alongside each other and eventually even entangled each other. I grew to trust the gifts of spontaneity and even joyfulness in the composition process, things I often revised out of drafts, but which my audience of very smart listeners responded to.

As of last year that group too disbanded. It was a ton of work for Deb, who wanted to reserve her psychic and physical strength for her own work. At least for a while. For years–nearly six for me, I think–that workshop was a great gift. And, I should say, it brought me to a new level of confidence. I began sending out work again, because people would say, of a good piece produced during those nights, send that out.